“We are Young Country,
we like all kinds…of music and people,
’cause we don’t draw no lines”
“Young Country”, Hank Williams Jr., 1988
On the back of the Mitchell family garage hangs a multitude of old license plates…from “EZ-2093″, that hung on my parents’ ’61 Chrysler New Yorker…to decorative plates stating “Chevrolet USA-1″.
Two plates you won’t find there…
“If it ain’t Country it ain’t music!!”
“If you don’t like Hank Williams YOU CAN KISS MY A**!!”
With all respect to anyone who might possess one of the above plates, I kindly refer you to Hank Williams’ son – Bocephus himself – in this award-winning video from 1988…
And a much younger Vince Gill.
So what’s my point??
Friday night April 13th, CBS and the ACM honored Pop/R&B legend Lionel Richie with a star-studded two-hour concert.
Country artist after Country artist sang Lionel’s songs or performed a duet with him.
Many proclaimed how influenced they were by this Top 40 hitmaker whose incredible run covered the better part of two decades and delivered a lengthy string of #1 Pop hits.
Really?? Who knew!
But dig a l’il deeper and it all begins to make sense for us Northerners who may be unfamiliar with the ways of the South.
Like, the music mix you’ll find in clubs.
My cousin Ed, a Butler native, spent the better part of two decades as one of the top club deejays in and around Houston, TX.
He explained to me that “Country” clubs down South don’t just play one kind of music exclusively. They’ll play a set of Country, follow it with a set of Rap or Rock or Top 40 or R&B…and go back-and-forth all night long.
So it’s quite possible…no, probable, to find yourself dancing to both Tim McGraw and “Three Times A Lady” in the same club on the same evening.
Plus…you couldn’t turn on a Top 40 or Adult Contemporary station anywhere in America between 1977-1987 and not hear Lionel’s music, whether with the Commodores (“Brick House“, “Easy“) or solo (“You Are“, “Running With The Night“, “Say You, Say Me“)
To think Lady A, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney or Jason Aldean only listened to Waylon and Willie and Johnny Cash growing up, respectfully, is to sell them short.
Here’s a song that still stops me cold in my tracks, 33 years after dominating the Pop Top 40 at the end of 1979.
The Tuskegee, Alabama Soul in Lionel’s vocal is especially evident in “Sail On”…
And we haven’t yet broached Lionel Richie’s DIRECT connections to Country Music.
Fortunately Kenny Rogers was on hand during the special to ‘splain how that happened.
Kenny – on top of both the Pop and Country charts in the late ’70′s, called on Richie to write a song for him.
Lionel responded with a half-written tune rejected by the Commodores…one he finished writing in the men’s room the day of the recording session…while Kenny was in the studio, waiting to record it!
Hard to argue with the result…”Lady” put Kenny in both the Country and Pop stratospheres in the fall of 1980.
As for Lionel himself, “Stuck On You” crossed over to the Country charts in 1984, peaking at #24. And in 1987, his duet with Alabama, “Deep River Woman”, was a bigger hit on Country radio than anywhere else, hitting #10 on the American Country Countdown.
It’s easy, in A.D. 2012, to think of Lionel Richie only as so much Soft Rock fodder…but to do so is to misread his music – and Pop Culture in general.
Most artists that end up categorized in Soft Rock Hell started someplace else…Pop, Rock, Alternative, R&B, even Country. They made music that touched a diverse group of people before being ushered off the main stage in favor of something fresh, new and different.
Sometimes it’s good to look back at where we’ve been to help us find where we’re going.
Popstar Enrique Iglesias did just that last year – quite nicely, in fact – with “I Like It”.
I include it here not because I expect it to be your cup of tea…but because Iglesias channeled Lionel Richie’s 1983 smash “All Night Long” into something fresh, new and different…and I’ll bet it’s turned on more than one listener to Richie’s amazing body of music.
The influences that guide today’s Country artists are quite diverse indeed. Many of those influences come from outside the genre but when they mix with what’s already here, you often wind up with something fresh, new and different.
While there’s always some concern that Country will one day lose its identity (a mindset Hank Jr. lampoons in the “Young Country” video atop this page)…I find the genre to be amazingly self-regulating, especially when a Country artist goes “too Pop”. It’s hard to quantify what constitutes “too Pop” but when it happens, everyone seems to know…and once the transgression has taken place, it’s difficult to forgive.
Case in point: Shania Twain, whose Come On Over CD is not only the best-selling Country album of all-time, but the biggest selling album EVER by any female artist in any genre, jumped the shark with her 2002 release Up! (which still sold 20 million units by itself – making it the best-selling stiff in history!) and never recovered. Her much-ballyhooed 2011 comeback “Today Is Your Day” petered out at #36.
More recently, Faith Hill, castigated after the Pop-flavored hits from “Breathe” began to sour to their original Country audience…attempted a comeback last fall with a cover of Pop group OneRepublic’s “Come Home“. Despite debuting to great fanfare, the public said “nyet” and the song died at #26. The redemption she gained from her 2005 #1 “Mississippi Girl” was short lived…if indeed it existed at all.
For both Shania and Faith, only their original 1990′s Country hits seem to hold any interest for today’s Country audience.
So as concerns Lionel Richie, we have someone whose abilities truly transcends genre. Yes, he was always Pop, but his Tuskegee roots…his Country roots…were never far away.
Like many respected Country icons, he wrote his own music.
Like many respected Country icons, he touched millions with that music.
Rascal Flatts give the whole thing a nice exclamation point below.
And Lionel, welcome home to Nashville.